avatar
Note To Jimmy Kimmel and Roger Daniels


I doubt that many ZNet readers will be shocked to hear that ABC television’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live” show does not provide an especially incisive or critical take on United States history and current events. Still, I found two found comments Kimmel made during his Monday, May 1st 2006 broadcast worthy of special attention in relation to the nation’s past and present.  

“NEVER HEARD OF MAY DAY”

The first such remark came when Kimmel quipped that he knew that May Day is “a big holiday” but had “no idea what it’s about.” Does anybody here know?,” Kimmel asked. Nobody on his staff, including his sidekick “Uncle Frank,” could enlighten him. 

The studio audience got a big laugh out of that one. 

Orwell wouldn’t have known whether to laugh or cry.  A democratic socialist who fought alongside anarchists during the Spanish Civil War, England’s George Orwell certainly knew that May Day achieved fame (for leftists and laborites) and notoriety (for capitalists) as the annual day of the working-class during the 19th century.  Nowhere did it achieve more such prominence than in the United States, where workers, immigrants, trade unionists, anarchists, Marxists, and other assorted leftists marched en masse for social justice and the Eight Hour Day on May 1, 1886. 

In a chilling reflection of corporate power’s amnesia-inducing reach in the “land of the free,” U.S citizens know next to nothing about the workers’ holiday, widely celebrated as a symbol of labor and left power in other nations. The celebrants include Bolivian peasants and mineworkers, who still commemorate the left-anarchist “Haymarket Martyrs,” executed by the capitalist state for leading the May 1886 Eight Hour Movement in Chicago.  If the U.S. citizenzry knew as much U.S. labor history as the silver miners of Bolivia, perhaps they would be more prepared to join Bolivians, Venezuelans, and other Latin Americans in resisting the transnational corporations that so powerfully assaut democracy and social and ecological health in both North and South America and around the world.

“ALL EXCEPT INDIANS ARE IMMIGRANTS” 

The second noteworthy Kimmel comment said more about race than class. Noting Latino Americans’ massive “Day Without Immigrants” protest on May First (2006), Kimmel made the seemingly liberal and sensitive observation that “all of us Americans are immigrants except of course for the Native Americans.” To buttress this claim, Kimmel ran a short film demonstrating “what our show would look like if no immigrants [or descendants of immigrants] came to work.” The clip displayed an empty studio with the lights off and a young Indian “squaw” sitting with her legs folded on the stage floor. More laughter.

Forget that most of the nation’s populace is removed by many generations from the time when their first-generation immigrant ancestors arrived from the Old World.  Kimmel was right (not that he cared) to remind United-States-of-Americans that they are descended from immigrants who took over a land that possessed an original non-white populace —- the Native Americans.

Well, not all the non-native [U.S.] Americans.  There’s another big non-white exception to the rule. The analysis doesn’t fit when it comes to black Americans, whose unpaid labor produced much of the surplus value and accumulated capital that made the U.S. into a rich and powerful First World state likely to attract Third World immigrants in the first place. 

A BLOODLESS DEFINITION: IMMIGRATION WITHOUT AGENCY

Black America is not descended from “immigrants.”  This is a very elementary point that seems lost even on expert immigration historians like the esteemed Roger Daniels.  The third chapter of Daniels’ widely read textbook Coming to America: A History of Immigration and Ethnicity in America (New York, NY: Perennial, 2002) is titled “Slavery and Immigrants from Africa.”  “If we take the New World as a whole during the colonial period,” this chapter intones, “four or five Africans immigrated for every European who came” to the Americas.  “At the end of the colonial period,” Daniels asserts, “roughly every fifth American immigrant was either an African immigrant or the descendant of one.” 

How many African “immigrants” “came to America?” Between the mid-fifteenth century and the 1870s, Daniels observes, “nearly 10 million persons were kidnapped out of Africa, all but 350,000 of them for sale in the Americas.”   

There’s a little problem here: to be snatched from one’s home country and continent, transported under generally horrific conditions across an ocean and sold in a distant destination you never chose (somewhere in America) is not to “migrate to America.”  It is not even to “come to America.”  It is to be poached, terrorized, made into a transportable commodity, and brought in chains and against one’s wishes to America.  Many stolen and “thingified” Africans destined for the New World (or death on the Middle Passage) attempted suicide during their “immigration”  to America.

Migrating birds do not consciously will their trip from one national territory to another.  Their flight and settlement patterns are programmed into their will by nature.  At the same time, they are not stolen and forced onto their journey against their will by vicious other birds. 

How did Daniels and other white historians fall into the curious habit of calling millions of “kidnapped” (Daniels’ own word) black slaves American “immigrants?” “By the definition used in this book, which has gained growing acceptance among scholars in the field,” Daniels announces, “it is now beyond dispute that “immigration” means “a change in residence involving the crossing of an international boundary.” 

By the terms of this coldly impersonal and bloodless but (supposedly) unassailable definition, it is apparently irrelevant whether or not the human beings who “crossed the international boundary” did so under or against their own will and with or without the conscious purpose of settling in a new land.  If I choose to retire and settle in Jamaica, according to Daniels, I will no more be an immigrant to the Caribbean than an Afghan sheep-herder swept up by the CIA and transported to the imperial torture camps on in Guantanomo Bay. Right…and Dutch Jews taken to Auschwitz by the Third Reich  “immigrated” from Holland to Poland! 

Daniels’ “indisputable” definition of immigration defies both common sense and, incidentally, Webster’s, which describes the meaning of the word “immigrate” in the following terms: “to go or remove into a new country, region, or environment in order to settle there.”  Webster’s  defines “emigrate” as follows: “to leave one country, state, or region and settle in another, for the purpose of residence.” 

The key words here are “in order to settle there,” and “for the purpose of residence.”  Migration involves the conscious, willfully agency of the migrant.  Human migration (immigration/emigration) is conceived and executed by the human migrant.  

And that is why the following fictional exchange between two West African villagers would have been absurd after a third villager was carried away to the New World on a British, Spanish, or Dutch slave ship in the 1600s:

Villager One: “I have not seen Villager Three for three days, ever since the raiding party came from the coast.  Do you know what happened to him?”

Villager Two: “You will not see Villager Three again, Villager One.  He has migrated to the New World.  He is an American immigrant now!”

“WE DIDN’T CHOOSE TO COME HERE”

Following Websters, it would actually be more accurate to refer to Native Americans as “immigrants” than to describe “kidnapped” African New World slaves that way.  The former group made a willful and conscious decision to follow the bison and wooly mammoth across the Bering Straits and further down into the continents that Columbus et al. “discovered” and raped.   

Elite academicians can pontificate about what is “beyond dispute” when it comes to defining immigration, but anyone with basic reasoning capacity ought to know that Villager Three and his fellow black transatlantic “kidnap” victims didn’t emigrate from Africa to America.  As a black community-college sociology instructor recently interviewed by the New York Times notes, the current immigration rights struggle “is, in fundamental ways, very different from ours.  We didn’t choose to come here; we came here as slaves.  And we were denied, even though we were legal citizens, our basic rights” (Rachel Swarm, “Growing Unease for Some Blacks on Immigration,” New York Times, 4 May 2006. p.
A1). 

That and other related fundamental differences are all-too relevant for understanding the black crisis that so invisibly persists and deepens behind the stage of such inspiring current events as the rise of the new immigrant-based civil rights movement. Daniels and his ilk have no excuse for being as clueless as a bad television talk-show host about the critical historical and contemporary issues involved.

Paul Street ([email protected]) is an historian, writer, speaker, and activist.  His latest book is Segregated Schools: Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge, 2005). 

Leave a comment